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Since 2012, the number of online undergraduate students in the U.S. has more than tripled. As more universities think about launching online degree programs to meet student demand, I wanted to chat more with Sam Brenton, the director of onlineSam Brenton, a white man with dark hair wearing a light-colored business suit. education at the University of London (UoL).

He’s launched more online degrees than he can count and just in the last 18 months added two more bachelor’s degrees to UoL’s catalog on Coursera. Sam also helped launch the first bachelor’s degree ever on Coursera—the B.Sc. in computer science. He’s an innovator who knows how to do online education at scale. UoL’s distance education programs reach 50,000 students around the globe.

Here’s what he’s learned along the way.

Q: Throughout your career, you’ve developed many online degrees, including several monumental programs, like the B.Sc. What have you learned makes a successful online degree program?

A: We’re really proud of the B.Sc. computer science. It was something of a gamble at the time for all parties (UoL, Coursera, Goldsmiths)—people often shied away from the commitment and complexity of undergraduate online—but we’ve shown we can do it at scale, and we work to keep innovating on it, pushing at the boundaries. Today we have thousands of students from over 100 countries, transforming their lives and careers.

I once had a student say to me, “It’s online, but I feel like I’m really there, like I’m really part of it. I can’t wait to get online, watch the lectures, talk to my classmates,” and I think that’s the benchmark for what you want, that sense of presence and belonging. If you have that, people are going to learn successfully, even if you get a few things wrong along the way.

I also love the art of teaching, and I get great satisfaction from seeing good teaching translating well to the online medium. We do overcomplicate things in education sometimes. The principles of good teaching are the same in any medium, though the practical things you do may vary. But seeing great teachers inspiring students to learn is just as much a joy online as it is in the room.

I’m not fond of the notion that online teaching is especially complex and takes years to understand. A good teacher should be able to teach well online if they are supported by good instructional designers and technology that doesn’t get in the way. And I don’t like the educational dogma that surrounds it sometimes. We haven’t perfected this yet, even a generation on from the inception of online learning, and educators need to keep experimenting.

Q: Tell me about the difference between creating online bachelor’s degrees versus master’s degrees. How do you deliver meaningful student support services and learning support at scale, and have you found these to be more critical for undergraduate students?

A: It is different, but I wouldn’t overplay the differences. True, you need more support and more scaffolding for the learning at undergraduate level, and you need to make sure you aren’t designing elaborate activities and assessments that are educationally laudable but which will have trouble scaling … but those are also good design principles at any level of study on online degrees. An undergraduate degree is bigger, of course, and has more moving parts, so along with good instructional design you need to make sure your back-office functions are set up for the mechanics of running an online degree at scale.

Q: You’ve been in online education for 20-plus years. Do you think universities will collaborate with industry leaders more in the future? What benefits have you seen from offering the Google IT Professional Certificate as a pathway to UoL’s bachelor of computer science degree?

A: Yes. I’d like to see more industry content and credentials embedded into our online degrees. There is no reason why academic and skills learning shouldn’t operate hand in glove. Industry increasingly offers great educational opportunities for their employees, and corporate learning and development is a mature, sophisticated form of higher education, now including things like in-house degrees. It’s time for academic higher education to move closer to industry, just as industry is moving closer to higher education. That’s what learners want and need—the best of both. Of course many providers have long collaborated with industry in their on-campus degrees, but there is a real opportunity to do it better online, because the whole world is available to you.

The Google IT certificate has been terrific for us as an entry ramp into the full degree, and we’ve since expanded the number of industry gateway certificates on our programs with Coursera. It’s brilliant for the students, as it enables someone who may not have the traditional academic credentials to prove that the degree is right for them—and we can recognize their learning by exempting them from credit. And it’s perfect for us because it brings us hundreds of students who have shown themselves to be motivated and capable. Our mission is to expand access to high-quality higher education across the globe, so this approach—and others like it—are vital tools in helping us achieve that.

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